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Biology, purpose, and pantheism

Published: 17 October 2015 (GMT+10)
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Despite protestations from prominent evolutionists, teleology (purpose) is central to understanding biology. But does this mean that organisms were designed by some external agent? There are evolutionists who agree that life is full of purpose, but that purpose comes from the very fabric of the universe itself, so that there’s no need for an external designer. Eugene Y. from Malaysia writes:

How would you recommend Nature Institute? As the website explain they hold to a Goethean approach, seeing Nature whole. They wrote in their publications and articles as seeing an organism-centered view which is contrary to a DNA-centered view in shaping the organism's biology. Organisms shape the organisms. I like this new view because it tries to explain biology in a new way but with discernment I cautioned myself. They don't claim to be part of an ID proponent but argue like one. They don't deny Evolution but speak of the "Wisdom' as the mechanism which they observed in Nature.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

We share two broad concerns with this group: we also believe that an organism-centric view of biology is the best approach, and we believe that purpose is an integral part of any accurate account of biology. These two concerns set us at odds with the 'mechanical' approach to biology most evolutionists use, just as it does for the Nature Institute.

Creation is not intrinsically mechanistic; it just appears that way because it seeks to answer the materialist in his own terms.

Nonetheless, Nature Institute is critical of any sort of design/creation approach to biology. Why? They make a fundamental distinction between two types of purpose—'natural' and 'designed' purpose. Think of it like Tarzan building a hammock out of vines. Vines don't naturally form hammocks; Tarzan has to manipulate them from outside to conform them to such a shape—this is 'design'. But the vines themselves have a natural inclination to grow and draw nutrients from the soil to produce leaves and fruit. A vine is just being a vine when it does these things; it's not being manipulated from outside for some other purpose it doesn't inherently have. Nonetheless, the vine doesn't just do anything; it's intrinsically inclined toward certain ends and not others—this is 'natural purpose'. The difference is between external imposition (the hammock made out of vines) and natural inclination (the vine that grows is just doing its natural thing). When we look at the approach of Nature Institute, it is clear that they think the creation approach to biology posits an external agent imposing on matter a purpose alien to its natural way of being when bringing life into existence, like Tarzan building a hammock from vines. As such, they see the divine creation paradigm as a 'mechanistic' approach to biology, similar to the materialistic approach of evolution.

But this is a false impression. Creation is not intrinsically mechanistic; it just appears that way because it seeks to answer the materialist in his own terms. Just because Intelligent Design proponents and creationists talk of biological structures in mechanistic terms in the context of the creation/evolution debate doesn't mean that we reduce organisms to being merely the sum of their mechanical parts.

Think of it like this: we can model the brain as a computer. Now, we believe that the brain is more than a computer, but that doesn't make the comparison completely invalid. The comparison may help us understand a lot about how the brain works, but it is imperfect. If we are right that the brain is not just an organic computer, then we can expect the computer model of brain function to break down at some point. But the analogy still helps us understand the brain better, even if only in negative terms (i.e. the brain is not like a computer in xyz ways).

Pantheism says: 'I don't exist, and I am God.' To say it is to refute it. The Christian notion, on the other hand, is perfectly logical: I exist, and I am not God, but God made me.

As such, we can appreciate Nature Institute's emphasis on the intrinsic goal-directedness of life … to an extent. If organisms (and the wider created world) have intrinsic tendencies toward certain ends and not others, then the created world has causal integrity in itself (e.g. when a rock breaks a window, the rock is a genuine cause for the broken window because of what a rock naturally is, and the event is not merely an occasion for God to break the window). Nonetheless, while the Christian theist should be at pains to stress that the created world has causal integrity in itself, and thus a real ontological distinction from God (i.e. the creation is not God nor a part of God), we cannot say that the created world has a causal sufficiency of itself. Why? This would be to say that the created world can exist and persist independently of God, which explicitly contradicts Scripture (Hebrews 1:3) and contradicts God's self-sufficiency and omnipotence. In other words, nature is not an end in itself. Nonetheless, it's also wrong to conclude that God is just an external agent that imposes His will on passive matter, because that assumes that passive matter is itself a given. The Christian position is that neither the matter nor the form of the world is a given, but that only God is. In other words, God purposed and produced all things from nothing, purely by the power of His perfectly free will (Genesis 1:1, John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 11:3). Moreover, Christians have classically said that God must concur with the specific operations of the causal structure of the created world in order for them to obtain. In other words, God and creatures are both genuine causes that ‘agree’ in bringing about an effect. If either cause is absent, then the effect will not happen. As such, nature has an intrinsic causal structure, but it can’t do anything apart from God's will.

What happens, then, if we take this notion of intrinsic purpose in all things to the extreme? Pantheism; 'God' becomes equated with the purpose in the world, and thus with the world itself. And the Nature Institute, especially as it takes its cues from writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and Owen Barfield, certainly has pantheistic tendencies: "Nature around us is whole and interconnected. Though we are part of nature, we do not yet fathom her depths, and our actions do not embody her wisdom [emphases added]."1 However, pantheism is just atheism by another name. And like atheism, it can give no account of the reality of personhood or morality. In one sense, it's even worse than atheism because in pantheism the very notion of 'different things' is an illusion, since it posits that all is God. Pantheism says: 'I don't exist, and I am God.' To say it is to refute it. The Christian notion, on the other hand, is perfectly logical: I exist, and I am not God, but God made me.

Probably the most obvious fruit of this philosophy in their thinking about biology is their avoidance of the origin of life. If organisms are intrinsically purposive, but do not receive such intrinsic purpose from a God who creates from nothing, then how could life have a beginning? Aristotle, who also believed in 'intrinsic teleology' in life, got around this issue by saying that the world was eternal, and life had always been there (for more on this, please see Abandon YEC and reconcile the Bible to evolution? Thomas Aquinas taught a young earth and 24–hour creation days). This isn't an option for the modern 'intrinsic teleologist' because there are strong biblical, scientific, and philosophical reasons to believe that the earth and the universe had an absolute beginning. The materialist faces these issues head on by trying to find some non-teleological mechanism by which life can arise from non-living materials, but this option isn't available to the 'intrinsic teleologist'. All that is available to them to explain the origin of life is some sort of spontaneous generation, but historically speaking this is little different from a mechanistic account of abiogenesis, and the fact is that all the evidence we have is against abiogenesis (see Origin of life for more information). If there is some sort of intrinsic 'life-directedness' principle in the universe, we've never seen it give rise to life where there was none before.

At the end of the day, some of their specific emphases are similar to our own, but they arise from a radically different worldview. Biblical creation has crucial theological and scientific strengths in the places where 'intrinsic teleology' fails as an ultimate explanation for life. As with the ID movement, some of what they say is useful, but it needs to be used carefully and critically, sorting out the wheat from the chaff. For a better and more biblical account of the origin of teleology in life, please see By Design.

References and notes

  1. About us, The Nature Institute, natureinstitute.org/about/index.htm, accessed 5 October 2015.  Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
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Creation, Fall, Restoration
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The Genesis Account
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Readers’ comments

Eugene Y.
I thank you CMI for publishing my comments. I really wish this could develop into a fruitful conversation. I am indeed proud that I am of the few Malaysian (or the only one) whose comment was being published. As for Nature Institute, I have refrained from surfing their sites but if I must I would be more discerning now about the presuppositions being utilised by Nature Institute. Thank You :)
Christopher B.
Great article, one can go on and on about logical contradiction in the Pantheistic worldview, your critique was succinct and effective. I find unity and diversity far more appealing, and only brought together coherently through the biblical worldview. Pantheist's will openly and admittedly deny logic to hold their view, and maintain a spirituality that transcends logic. But there are so many differences of essence within the view that ultimately, holds the sole thesis that we are the same essence. I find it difficult to reconcile that our deepest destiny is to assimilate into the ocean that we already are. I digress.
I have a question regarding Aristotle. You mentioned him holding that life was eternal and so forth, did he later retract this view? Reason being, I know he deduced that there must first be an un-thought thought or immovable mover as the first cause of the Universe. I am assuming because he inherently recognized the law of causality. This view of eternality of life seems to blatantly contradict the immovable mover. Am I missing something? thank you for your ministry!
Shaun Doyle
Thank you for the compliments; I'm glad you found the article pleasing. As to Aristotle, no, he did not change his view that the universe was eternal. Aristotle didn't see a problem in an infinite regress of past moments (or, he didn't think he could avoid it), but he did see a problem in an infinite regress of reasons why things move. As such, Aristotle's 'Unmoved Mover' was the ultimate reason why everything moves, but it did not produce movement in anything itself. To put in terms of causes, Aristotle's unmoved mover was not the efficient cause (i.e. producer) of everything. In Aristotle's understanding, that would be to make the unmoved mover move, which is absurd. However, the unmoved mover is the final cause (i.e. the purpose) of everything.

Aristotle's error was that he didn't take into account the idea of creation from nothing. Creation from nothing is not a type of change or motion because in it there is no prior existing subject which is acted upon. Therefore, when something is created from nothing, the act and the product are simultaneous. This means that if something was created from nothing, then time could start from that point, since the act and the product are simultaneous. God can create everything from nothing, thus there's no need for an eternal universe!

Is Aristotle's notion inconsistent? Some Christians say yes, others say no. I'm personally inclined to say yes; an actual infinite regress is always problematic. But we can distinguish an infinite temporal regress from an infinite explanatory regress, and whether or not we see a problem in the former, we can at least agree with Aristotle that the latter is problematic.
Thomas J.
Of course, philosophers and theologians have been struggling with these same matters for centuries. I am catching whiffs of Aristotle, and others as I read. When you say, "I exist, and I am not God, but God made me.", perhaps in addition you could say God created others and the total context, or matrix, in which all "live and move and have their being". Things as thought and things as they are, are not the same, except in the mind of God. That is simply an aspect of our individual finitude. God knows every "thing" and every interrelationship of all "things". Yet He is not the "things" nor their sum. "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." God creates to give His conscious creation joy in being and in the One Who gives them being. Their purpose is not simply to exist as static things within the neutral, natural matrix all conscious beings share, but to rejoice and reflect praise to their Creator. But in this present age, as G.M. Hopkins wrote, "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil/ And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil/ Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod." For now we struggle in a kind of holding action by the grace of God against our constant "coming short of the glory of God" as we await the palingenesis in Christ. Solomon taught us that "All is vanity, a chasing after wind," in which joy is misplaced, twisted, and blunted while we share the creation with forces that intentionally deflect and recoil from the glory of God. "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
Peter N.
Can you please clarify: "Moreover, Christians have classically said that God must concur with the specific operations of the causal structure of the created world in order for them to obtain."
Shaun Doyle
The following couple of sentences were intended to clarify the meaning of ‘concur’ in this context: “In other words, God and creatures are both genuine causes that ‘agree’ in bringing about an effect. If either cause is absent, then the effect will not happen.” But maybe some further explanation will help. The idea of concurrence is that there are two genuine causes active in creation that contribute to produce any given effect—God is the primary cause, and creaturely things are secondary causes. If either cause is absent, the effect does not obtain. If nature is not there to do what it naturally will, then nothing will happen. Nonetheless, God retains a sovereign ‘veto power’ over secondary causes—if He doesn’t agree with them, secondary causes won’t produce their natural effects.
An application of this idea can be found in the way theologians often explain how God miraculously preserved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace (Daniel 3). The fire continued to act as fire naturally does, but God didn’t ‘agree’ with the effect that the fire would ordinarily produce in the bodies and clothes of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Since God didn’t ‘agree’ with the fire’s natural tendency, the fire didn’t burn the three men or their clothes. In other words, the fire, without God’s ‘agreement’ or concurrence to produce its natural effect, doesn’t produce its natural effect.

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